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Major Anthony Gordon, and the Development of Bayonet Fencing in the British Isles: 1740-1820

In Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Uncategorized, Weapons and Armor on November 15, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Above: Illustration of Anthony Gordon’s bayonet method, drawn ca. 1804-1805, never published. The soldier in blue represents the old established exercise, while those in red, on the right, showcase Gordon’s new method. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As far as is currently known, prior to the 1780s, the British military—like that of most of Europe—did not officially instruct its rank and file troops in a systematic method of self-defense for close-quarters combat with the bayonet (although it is possible that elite units received more advanced instruction, no known extant sources indicate what that may have consisted of). Instead, the bayonet position prescribed in the established exercise did not really guard the soldier at all, but was a direct descendant of the old “firelock” stance which had replaced that of the pike. In this exercise, attacks with the bayonet were made by first “charging” the weapon—that is, withdrawing the rear arm so that “the soldier has the butt-end behind him, and the left elbow advanced toward the middle of the barrel”—and then “pushing” the bayonet forward using the arms alone, and sometimes with a slight lean of the body:

The old “push bayonet” position, illustrated in Benjamin Cole’s 1746 Pocket Companion.

Although the British exercise was slightly revised in 1764 (to include a shift in the grip of the rear hand to the “small,” rather than bottom, of the musket butt), the old, simple “charge-push” technique remained essentially the same. In 1771, a treatise on military tactics by “Sieur B,” published in London, lamented the bayonet position “almost general through Europe,” which was “of pernicious consequence, as it is an evident obstacle to the action of a soldier.” Leading members of the British military establishment frequently dismissed such criticism, laboring under the impression that the bayonet was a rather poor and ineffective weapon—only to be used as a last resort—and therefore unworthy of further attention. As the British commander (and veteran of the failed attempt to suppress the American Revolution) Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple stated in 1782:

William Dalrymple (1736–1807)

“The Bayonet can be of little utility by way of impulsion in the field, for the reasons before assigned: From the formation of our Battalions, thin and incohesive, calculated so much for the missive weapon; the want of defensive armour; and the bayonet being placed at the end of the firelock, renders it a weapon most unwieldy, and with which it is not easy to fence: These defects in modern infantry, prove the impracticability of two Battalions, opposed to each other, being brought in the open field to close encounter: One body must give way before they get into action.” – Tacticks by Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple, of the Queen’s Royal Regiment of Foot (Dublin: Printed by George Bonham, for W. and H. Whitestone, 1782), 113.

Dalrymple’s solution was simply to ignore bayonet training, and to insist that armies avoid close-quarters combat at all costs.

This dynamic would change, however, thanks to the efforts of Anthony Gordon, a native of Ulster, Ireland, who would go on to create the first known method of bayonet fencing in the British Isles, utilizing principles similar to those applied to the foil and small-sword.

Gordon’s signature, shown in government correspondence.

After attending Trinity College, Dublin, Anthony Gordon became, during the early 1780s, a prominent member of the celebrated Dublin fencing society, the Knights of Tara; notably, he was also a student of Ireland’s most renowned fencing master, Cornelius Kelly. Upon leaving Trinity, Gordon joined the British Army in Dublin as a young lieutenant, and was shocked to find that his fellow soldiers apparently received no training in any particular self-defense method for close-quarters combat with the bayonet. He later recounted:

On joining the regiment, [I] was astonished to find no Exercise for close action; no notions of making thrusts, cuts, and parades [parries]; no system of defence or offence; for the established Exercises are adapted only to the missile weapon, and to the movements in Line, Column, Square, and Echellon, &c.

Gordon thus determined to develop and propagate a new, and far more sophisticated, method of attack and defense with the bayonet. Between 1783 and 1805, Gordon authored a number of important treatises on the subject. A detailed chronicle of the development of Gordon’s method is contained in Chapter VII (pp. 289-335) of the new book Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. This chapter, which is devoted to the life, career, and writings of Major Gordon, also includes numerous extracts and images from Gordon’s earlier works which have not previously been noticed by scholars or historians.

Detail of plate (restored) from Gordon’s 1805 Treatise on the Science of Defence.

Gordon’s earliest known writing on bayonet fencing—which found its way into the hands of America’s founding father, George Washington—laid the groundwork for his later works, of which the most well-known is his Treatise on the Science of Defence: For the Sword, Bayonet, and Pike in Close Action (London: 1805). Shown below are plates from a copy of an 1806 second edition containing autograph notes by Gordon in the margins:

Between 1780 and 1820, a large number of British units trained in, and adopted, Gordon’s method. These included the 67th and 90th regiments, the Royal Marines, numerous volunteer regiments (such as Lord Hobart’s Regiment, the Loyal North Britons, and the St James Westminster Volunteer Regiment), the Light Infantry of the Foot Guards, and others. The effectiveness of Gordon’s exercise—as compared to that of the established exercise—was well-proven at the time. Contests and demonstrations between 1803 and 1818 before King George III and the British military brass gave little doubt as to its superiority. As one witness reported: “the superiority of the new exercise was such as to render it evident, that combatants on the old plan, receiving its attacks, would be destroyed on the first moment of onset.” (Irish Swordsmanship, 299-306, 329-333).

Above: Illustrations of two of the regiments who adopted Gordon’s “new method.” From the book Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland.

As to the system’s specific techniques, as stated previously, many extracts and images from Gordon’s published works and manuscript can be found in Irish Swordsmanship. However, following the publication of that book, several new color images detailing aspects of Gordon’s method have been discovered among the collection of the British Museum, and are presented in this article.

Front view, never published, of Anthony Gordon’s system of consolidated ranks. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

These original pencil and watercolor images, drawn by Richard Cook (1784-1857), were acquired by the British Museum from the artist (or his estate) in 1857. Although they are not identified by the museum as specifically illustrating Gordon’s method, a comparison between the watercolors and Gordon’s known works leaves one with no doubt that they represent the same system. It may be that these watercolors were the original images used as the basis for the illustrations in Gordon’s 1805 publication. Or, it may be that these sketches were part of a unique manuscript (now believed to be lost), authored in 1806 by Gordon’s nephew James, in which a plan was laid out to reform the army and implement the new method.

This image is similar to Plate no. 12 in Gordon’s Treatise, but with some noted differences. On the left are depicted soldiers of the established exercise, while the soldiers on the right demonstrate Gordon’s system. A soldier on the right, originally part of Gordon’s 2nd (center) rank, lunges to reach an enemy soldier in the opposing 2nd rank, while a soldier in Gordon’s 1st rank uses his bayonet to protect against the point of the enemy’s bayonet in the opposing 1st rank. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Some of the watercolor figures are identical to the line drawings which appear in Gordon’s published Treatise on the Science of Defence, but are glaringly absent from an earlier manuscript draft drawn up by Gordon in 1804—thus representing the “missing” figures in the latter, which were then subsequently re-drawn and published in the 1805 and 1806 editions.

The soldiers on the right are nearly identical to those shown in plate 14 of Gordon’s published 1805 treatise. On the left is a frontal view of squared ranks, never published. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Excitingly, the color drawings also include some additional sketches and figures which have never before been published. Among the latter include close-up sketches of the various grips to be used in Gordon’s system, as well as an overhead diagram of the positions which the feet were to be adhered to when forming ranks. These images assist in developing a fuller understanding of Gordon’s innovative method.

Detail: sketch of a grip on the small of the musket butt. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Detail: sketch of the grip on the bottom of the musket butt, used in Gordon’s new method. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Detail: sketch of a soldier on guard in Gordon’s new method. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A diagram showing the proper placement of feet in a rank formation. Courtesy of the British Museum, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

POSTSCRIPT

Gordon’s system was revolutionary for its time, but, despite the support of numerous officials, and even the king himself, it encountered significant opposition from members of the British military establishment, many of whom held views similar to Dalrymple’s. Although the later European methods of bayonet fencing which developed in the 1820s and 1830s did not copy Gordon’s method closely, his continuing influence can be seen in a number of ways. For instance, the similarities between Gordon’s technique pitting the bayonet against cavalry (which was original when it first appeared) and others used decades later is evident below:

Bayonet versus cavalry (at the top) in Anthony Gordon’s 1805 treatise. Below his image are two plates published in subsequent decades in Germany and Britain.

Whatever the exact degree of influence his method may or may not have exerted, as far as is currently known, Anthony Gordon has the distinction of being the first individual in the British Isles—and perhaps Northern Europe—to write in any significant detail about applying fencing principles to the bayonet. Nearly a century later, in 1913, the Aberdeen Journal was not overstating the truth when it referred to Gordon as the “Modern Father” of bayonet fencing in Great-Britain.

FURTHER READING:

The martial wisdom of Ireland’s swordsmen survives in Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. The product of more than ten years of research, the first part of this book tells the story of eighteenth century Ireland’s most renowned duelists, gladiators, and fencing masters. The second part of this book contains the text of A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword—an almost completely overlooked fencing treatise, now published again for the first time in more than 230 years, that is currently the only known original treatment of swordsmanship by an Irish author published in Ireland during the eighteenth century. The Irish pike exercise has also been included among the book’s many appendices. “Irish Swordsmanship” contains extensive footnotes, more than sixty drawings, paintings, and engravings from the period, a comprehensive glossary of terms, and seven appendices.

Irish Swordsmanship is available in both paperback and hardcover editions from Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon EuropeBarnes & Noble, and other national and international retailers.

You can also read extracts, view images, and read articles pertaining to the book and its subject by visiting the book’s Facebook page.

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Old Valentine’s Day Customs and Lost Romantic Rituals

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2015 at 2:31 pm

Some Valentine’s Day history…

Out of This Century

Valentines- Punch

Although the roots of Valentine’s Day stretch back to A.D 496 (when it was established by Pope Gelasius I to commemorate the life of a Christian martyr), most scholars agree that the holiday did not become associated with any romantic notions until the late middle ages. By the early 18th century the custom of “drawing names” had become popular, as noted by Bourne, in his Antiquitates Vulgares (1725):

It is a ceremony, never omitted among the Vulgar, to draw Lots which they Term Valentines, on the Eve before Valentine-day. The names of a select number of one sex, are by an equal number of the other put into some vessel; and after that, every one draws a name, which…is called their Valentine, and is also looked upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.

These name-drawing rituals could become quite elaborate, to the point of resembling…

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News Flash from 1792: Mother Fights Off Hordes of Indians with an Axe

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2011 at 3:12 pm

From the Windham Herald, Saturday. September 8th, 1792:

Extraordinary instance of female heroism. Extracted from a letter written by Col. James Perry to the Rev. Jordon Dodge. On the 1st of April inst. a number of Indians surrounded the house of John Merril, which was discovered by the barking of a dog. Merril stepped to the door to see what he could discover, and received three musket balls, which caused him to fall back into the house with a broken leg and arm. The Indians rushed on to the door, but it being instantly fastened by his wife, who with a girl about fifteen years of age, stood against it, the savages could not immediately enter. They broke one part of the door, and one of them crowded partly through. The heroic mother, in the midst of her screaming children and groaning husband, seized an axe, and gave a fatal blow to the savage, and he falling headlong into the house, the Indians supposed they had obtained their end, and rushed after him, until four of them had fell in like manner, before they discovered their mistake. The rest retreated, which gave opportunity again to secure the door. The conquerors rejoiced in their victory; hoping they had killed the whole company, but their expectations were soon dashed by finding the door again attacked, which the bold mother endeavoured once more to secure, with the assistance of the young woman; their fears now came on them like a flood; and they soon heard a noise on the top of the house, and then found the Indians were coming down the chimney; all hopes of deliverance were now at an end; but the wounded man ordered his little child to tumble a couch, that was filled with hair and feathers, on the fire, which made such a smoke that two lusty indians came tumbling down the chimney; the wounded man exerting every faculty in this critical moment, seized a billet of wood, with which he conquered the smothered Indians; at the same instant the woman aimed a blow at the savage at the door, but not with the same effect as the rest, which caused him to retreat. They then again secured the door as fast as possible, and rejoiced at their deliverance, but not without fear of a third attack. They carefully watched with their family until morning, and were not again disturbed. We learn by a prisoner that made his escape from the Indians, that the wounded Indian last mentioned, was the only one that escaped at this time. On his return he was asked,–“what news brother?” “Plaguy bad news,” replied the wounded Indian, “for the squaws have taken the breech clout, and fight worse than the long knives.” This affair happened at Newbardstown about fifteen miles from Sandy-creek, and may be depended on, as I had the pleasure to assist in tumbling them into a hole, after they were stripped of their head dresses, and about twenty dollars worth of silver
furniture.